The students in Vanessa Rehmeyer’s seventh-grade science class at All Saints Catholic School in Bangor didn’t know what to expect when studying Maine’s Atlantic salmon.
They certainly didn’t anticipate observing and raising a two-headed, four-eyed alevin that hatched from among the 200 eggs that were part of their project. Alevins are newly hatched young with an unabsorbed yolk sac.
“I thought it was cool that some of the fish had genetic mishaps where they had four eyes, two heads, etc,” student Addison Norman said.
The freakish fish was among the many highlights the students experienced learning about Maine’s Atlantic salmon, the last remaining wild populations in the United States.
“It’s fascinating. It was a segue into talking about embryonic development,” said Rehmeyer, a first-year teacher at the school’s St. John’s Campus.
“We talked a lot about ethics, how to care for different kinds of species, and having them for a purpose, using them well, treating them well,” she added.
The salmon in the Gulf of Maine Distinct Population Segment since 2000 have been listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The class did its Atlantic salmon study with help from Fish Friends, a program of the Maine Council of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, which provides information and learning materials to schools.
“The Fish Friends program is informative,” Rehmeyer said. “It’s community outreach, but it also supports schools in raising these salmon and mentoring and teaching the students.”
Rehmeyer said the school was fortunate to have been able to conduct in-person classes throughout most of the COVID-19 pandemic. That enabled her class to closely follow the development of the Atlantic salmon they received from start to finish.
The salmon eggs with eyes arrived just after school vacation in February and eventually hatched after April vacation. Observing the growth process in a special tank, complete with a chiller to maintain the appropriate water temperature, proved intriguing for students and teacher alike.
“The way they develop from little eggs to tiny swimming creatures was amazing. And it was a really fun experience,” student Sofia Merchan Fonseca. said.
The students were able to watch the alevins for about a month before their scheduled release into the Kenduskeag Stream in Bangor.
They noted the alevins like to stay near the bottom of the tank and preferred hanging around little piles of rocks or in the corner of the tank.
“We talked about why that helps them survive in the rivers,” Rehmeyer said.
And it wasn’t only the seventh-grade class that benefited from having the active tank in the classroom. All Saints students from grades 5, 6 and 8 also followed the project, Rehmeyer said.
“They wanted to be part of it, too,” she said. “They wanted to peek in the tank and ask questions.”
Students particularly enjoyed watching what Rehmeyer called salmon calisthenics, a process during which the alevins were spurred to more vigorous activity thanks to a squirt of water from a turkey baster into the tank.
“It’s like the river current and the kids really enjoyed it,” she said.
Students were impressed by the sheer size of an adult Atlantic salmon compared to the tiny eggs from which they came. Rehmeyer did a full-scale drawing to display on the classroom wall that showed what a full-grown salmon looks like.
“I learned that salmon can grow up to 3 feet!” student Elise Ouellette said. “I was really surprised that they can grow to be so big.”
Students also marveled at the Atlantic salmon’s ability to leave their home waters and swim out to live at sea, only to return home to reproduce.
With guidance from Hazel Stark at Fish Friends, the temperature of the tank was increased one or two degrees per week. The goal was to replicate as closely as possible the temperature of the water in the stream, which warmed quickly this spring.
Finally, on May 14, Rehmeyer’s class made the short trip to the banks of the Kenduskeag Stream. It was a rare treat for the students, as field trips hadn’t been allowed this year because of the pandemic.
The students and a few family members participated in the release of the salmon by emptying small containers containing the tiny fish into the water.
“They were invested. They had worked with these salmon for three months and so it was really cool for them to put them in the river and watch them go,” Rehmeyer said, pointing out the class proved a community building experience for the students and their families.
Perhaps the most important lesson of all was that even though Atlantic salmon are endangered, the students helped increase awareness of the difficult situation facing the fish and played a small part in efforts to restore the population.
“It makes me feel good about helping the salmon population and it was a very cool opportunity,” student Meredith Walsh said.
“I thought it was really exciting to save endangered species, because it feels good to give back to the environment,” student Archana Rajan said.
Of the original 200 eggs the class received, 196 alevins were released into the Kenduskeag. Even so, the students are aware of the long odds facing the salmon in surviving long enough to one day return to the stream.
“I feel good about helping the endangered species survive because they have lived in the river before us and we destroyed some of their habitat,” Aiden Ouellette said.
And what about the two-headed, four-eyed fish, you might ask.
“It did go into the stream, but whether or not he or she made it, I don’t know,” Rehmeyer said. “We just put them all in and let it happen.”
Correction: A previous version of this story included an incorrect name of All Saints School science teacher Vanessa Rehmeyer.